GENEVA: U.N. investigators left for the Central African Republic Monday to launch a probe into alleged genocide and ethnic cleansing in the conflict-ravaged country.
The three international investigators will spend two weeks traveling the country speaking to victims, witnesses, and the main actors in the bloody Muslim-Christian conflict.
They expect to draw up a list of suspected perpetrators that could be used for future prosecutions, possibly by the International Criminal Court, which is conducting a parallel probe.
“We have to put an end to the impunity,” said Bernard Acho Muna, who was appointed head of the International Commission of Inquiry by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon January.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva before leaving for Bangui, the Cameroon Supreme Court lawyer and former deputy chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda said that he hoped his mission could help ward off a feared genocide.
“We are hoping that our presence and the investigations we are doing will be a signal [that will prevent] the people who are making this hate propaganda [from moving] to action,” he said.
The Central African Republic has been torn apart by sectarian clashes since the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in March 2013 and replaced him with their leader, Michel Djotodia, who was himself forced out in January.
Violence, including murder, rape and the torching of homes, has continued ever since, as mostly Christian anti-machete vigilantes have taken their revenge.
Thousands have been killed and around a quarter of the country’s 4.6 million people displaced, as 8,000 African and French peacekeeping troops struggle to rein in the militias terrorizing the population.
An International Committee of the Red Cross employee was killed Saturday when armed men broke into the Catholic mission in Ndele in the north of the country where he and three colleagues were staying.
A day earlier, four Muslims were killed and their bodies savagely mutilated in two separate attacks in Bangui. One man’s body was chopped up by machete-wielding assailants. His body parts, including his hands, were paraded around the neighborhood by local youths, according to a security source.
Until recently, the country’s Muslim minority accounted for between 10 and 15 percent of the total population, but the violence has slashed that number to around 2 percent, as Muslims have abandoned their homes in droves, said Adama Dieng, the U.N. adviser on the prevention of genocide.
The country is “being emptied of its Muslim population,” he told reporters in Geneva.
Muna said the “hate propaganda” on the ground was reminiscent of his time working in Rwanda, where the 1994 genocide left an estimated 800,000 people dead in the space of a few months.
“Genocide starts always with propaganda, convincing the population that this group of people are evil, they are bad, they should be eliminated,” he said.
He added that in the Central African Republic the messages of hate could be surfacing due to the lawless situation.
“I hope that this is only noise and that when you can put the troops on the ground and law and order, this might disappear,” he said.
If the international community shows it is ready to “take a firm stand to prosecute people who are already making hate propaganda and promoting indiscriminate tribal killings ... I think it can be stopped,” he said.
Dieng stressed the importance of the U.N. probe and the parallel ICC investigation to help ensure that all perpetrators are brought to justice.
Muna and his fellow investigators Jorge Castaneda, a former Mexican foreign secretary; and Fatimata M’Baye, a Mauritanian lawyer and leading human rights activist, are set to arrive in Bangui Tuesday.
Muna said they would seek to get a better idea of the situation on the ground during the two-week trip.
The investigators will then present an initial report to the U.N. Security Council in New York in June, and a final report six months later.
“We hope we will be able to advise the Security Council on what to do,” Muna said.